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Pros and Cons of Nuclear Energy

Omkar Phatak Jan 28, 2019
Nuclear energy is a highly sought energy source, touted as an effective alternative to conventional sources of power generation. However, the nuclear disaster in Japan has forced a rethink of nuclear power strategy. Take a look at the pros and cons of using energy derived from splitting the atom.

Disparity in Nuclear Stance

While USA continues to be the largest supplier and domestic producer of nuclear power with 65 active nuclear plants and more in the making, European giant - Germany has decided to shut down all nuclear reactors by 2020.
With the recent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear catastrophe in perspective and a history of associated nuclear hazards, there is a worldwide debate raging on about whether investment in this energy alternative is worth the associated risks. Nuclear power plants derive energy from controlled nuclear fission reactions.
A substantially powerful alternative, compared to conventional fuels, nuclear power is the most potent energy source harnessed by man. Energy is derived from fossil fuels by oxidation - a change in the energy levels of electrons outside the nucleus.
On the other hand, nuclear energy derives power from fission - changes in the energy levels of the nucleons in an atomic nucleus. Tremendous energy lies locked up in there and nuclear fission is one way of tapping into it.

Nuclear Energy Pros and Cons

Every powerful source of energy discovered by man has come at a price. Nuclear energy comes with its share of risks and hazards. The pros and cons of using nuclear energy, need to be put in front of our policy makers in the government. Here is an unbiased analysis of the benefits and detrimental factors associated with nuclear energy.


Phenomenal Energy Output

The energy produced from fissionable materials like Uranium-235, is hundred thousand times the energy obtained by burning same amount of coal. This makes it a highly efficient power source.
The electric power generation capacity of these plants is million times higher than fossil fuel based facilities. This superabundance of energy, derived from a small amount of fissionable material is the primary rationale behind the adoption of nuclear power.
The derived heat can be used to power multitude of applications, ranging from electric power plants, submarines, aircraft carriers to space vehicles. For example, the recently launched Mars rover -Curiosity is nuclear powered (it's nuclear energy mechanism isn't based on fission, but derives heat from natural radioactive decay of plutonium).
The ten Nimitz-Class aircraft carriers in service of the US Navy are all powered by twin A4W nuclear reactors, providing a power output of 190 MW. The average power output of any nuclear plant in USA is 12.2 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh).
The combined output of all 104 currently functional US nuclear reactors reached 790 billion kWh, contributing to 19% of the total nationwide energy output in 2011. In short, the punch packed by nuclear power is simply incomparable to that delivered by coal and other conventional energy resources, which is reason enough to promote its usage.

Low Emission Levels

Nuclear fission leads to very low green house gas emission, leaving a negligible carbon footprint. Research conducted at the National University of Singapore, by Benjamin K. Sovacool revealed the mean carbon emissions over total life cycle of nuclear power plants to be 66 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kiloWatt hour (gCO2).
This is very low, compared to emission levels in coal plants (960 gCO2) and natural gas powered plants (at 443 gCO2). Though the actual process of nuclear fission is almost emission free, this value is computed from the emissions that occur during subsidiary activities like uranium mining, enrichment and transportation.
So compared to conventional energy sources, nuclear fission is certainly cleaner. On an increasingly climate change conscious world stage, this virtue of nuclear power has helped find believers. Still the value of emissions is higher, compared to solar photovoltaic cells and wind powered plants.

Energy Security

Nuclear energy is a comparatively reliable energy resource, unaffected by strikes and shortages around the world, as very little is required at a time and it's well-distributed around the world. Its abundance is 40 times that of silver, in the Earth's crust. It is the 51st most abundant element in the Earth's crust.
Largest uranium producers of the world include Kazakhstan, Russia, Canada, Namibia, Uzbekistan, China, USA, Niger, Argentina and Ukraine. One of the positive aspects of nuclear power is therefore - Energy Security and independence that it offers from conventional energy sources.


Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters

A nuclear meltdown is the result of reactor core overheating, due to failure of cooling systems. As a result, the core temperature may rise drastically resulting in a literal melting down of equipment. This can lead to disastrous consequences, exposing the world to high dosages of radioactivity.
The Three Mile island incident (1979) in Pennsylvania, the Chernobyl disaster (1986) and Fukushima Daiichi disaster (2011) are some of the most recent incidents in history which bear testimony to the widespread threat that nuclear reactors pose when their safety mechanisms are breached.
There is a risk of such disasters occurring and destroying everything in their wake. Ergo the designing and maintenance of nuclear reactors is one of the most important tasks, as a nuclear catastrophe can have repercussions like radiation leak which will have long ranging effects on the environment for years to come.

Radioactive Exposure

The danger of radioactive exposure during mining and extraction of uranium and other radioactive ores, looms in developing, as well as developed countries.
The radioactive rubble and debris left after mining, if not properly disposed, can lead to several diseases like cancer and mutation. Once radioactive isotopes with highly ionizing radiation enter the food cycle, it can affect the entire ecosystem, flora and fauna.

Radioactive Waste Disposal Problems

Fission of a material like Uranium leaves by-products, which are themselves radioactive and highly harmful to the environment. Radioactivity cannot be turned off and therefore, there is no way but to safely store radioactive waste (till it exhausts its half-life and transforms into non-radioactive by-products).
There is widespread controversy regarding the choice of location for radioactive storage. Many techniques of radioactive waste disposal have been suggested including geological disposal, transmutation and reprocessing. While some are already in stages of implementation on a global level, the issue still stays largely unresolved.

High Initial Construction Cost

Though the operating costs of a nuclear power plant are substantially lesser than fossil fuel based plants, the initial construction and setup costs are high.
The high safety standard requirement along with maintenance of radioactive waste treatment facilities add to costs further. For developing countries, the initial setup costs can be very steep, though the future payout in terms of energy output is high.

A Catalyst for Nuclear Weapons Proliferation

Often, nuclear breeder reactor programs are smoke screen for the development of nuclear weapons. There is no guarantee that fissionable nuclear fuel supplied to a country will not be used to produce weapons of mass destruction like atomic and hydrogen bombs.
If this technology falls in the wrong hands, it can spell disaster for the world. So there is a considerable risk in promoting the use of technology.

Nuclear Fusion Power

Fusion (a process of energy generation through fusion of deuterium nuclei) has been a tougher nut to crack, compared to fission, as it requires a high initial energy input.
The problem of high energy plasma confinement has been the major stumbling block in its development. It is too early to talk about the pros and cons of nuclear fusion, as the technology is still in its infancy and controlled fusion reaction is still a pie in the sky.
Nuclear energy should be an option, but not the only one to rely on for the future. It must be remembered that nuclear power is not a renewable resource. Like crude oil, uranium fuel sources will be exhausted one day.
So nuclear energy cannot be perceived as a permanent solution to the energy problem but a temporary and inevitable one at best. Nevertheless, it deserves a position in the spectrum of energy solutions made available by technology. The long-term solution lies in developing technology based on renewable energy sources like wind, tidal and solar energy.